If you haven’t yet heard of an internet meme (rhymes with “cream”) then please Google “Forever Alone.” Right now.

A meme is basically a catch-phrase, a huge inside joke that is easily transmitted from person to person. The term “meme” refers to more than just a trending funny picture or video. In fact, it goes back to a longstanding debate over whether human culture owes its existence to tiny evolutionary units, called memes, that transmit cultural information.

The term “meme” was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, a meme is “a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Memes exist inside our brains and can only replicate through imitation: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

The need for memes arises from the “new soup” of human culture, similar to how genes arose from the “primeval soup.” Memes can be ideas, catch-phrases, pottery techniques, or “Forever Alone.” Memes pick up where genes falter. This is a complementary duo that Dawkins intended. He even modified the original word “mimeme” to “meme” to rhyme with “gene” for emphasis.

“Meme” is a loaded term, one that stirs its fair share of controversy. Marcel Danesi, a professor of semiotics and anthropology at U of T, and an accomplished scholar in the semiotic study of youth culture and metaphor, opposes Dawkins’s views. Danesi, who has been involved in the memetic debate for about 20 years now, offered his perspective in an interview with The Varsity.
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Danesi does not see a need for the term “meme.” To Danesi, “meme” is a simply “a way of reducing what was known in the past as passing on through historical traditions.” As for Dawkins’s evolutionary explanation for memes, Danesi replies that, “[the] technique [that] passes it on, what it [means] to call it a meme or something else, to me, is irrelevant. No one knows. But we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time… The media, however, has an enormous role to play in spreading it broadly and frequently. The people behind the media will make sure that those things that are profitable will make it, and not a memetic blind process of human genetics.”

However, Danesi agrees with Dawkins’s assertion that memes catch on. Danesi studies the crazes and fads of popular culture, especially youth culture, and has noticed the parallels to the viral nature of Dawkins’s memes. Danesi illustrates his point with the example of Sudoku: “Why did Sudoku become a craze? First of all, it’s easy to figure out but still contains challenges — and everybody’s doing it! So I’m going to be part of it. You’ve got those three characteristics, you’ve got yourself a craze or something that passes on.”

Another point of contention is the idea from evolutionary psychology that memetics is an implicit theory of the world. According to Danesi, beliefs dictating that art is strictly hard-wired are example of “determinism at its worst.”

You can’t explain much after everything is reduced to its smallest components, and described as genetic or atomic relations. Terms like “animal mechanisms” and “genetic impulses” are what Danesi calls “misnomers for human changes.” We cannot forget the caveats that evolutionary psychology cannot explain; namely, social, cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual change.

Longstanding beliefs permeate human culture — such as burial of the dead — which are not survival mechanisms. To Danesi, humans are creators of their own, makers of their own, and make their own theories. “You cannot, in any way, theorize about the creative impulse — because a theory is itself a product of a creator.”

Prescribing a deterministic approach to understanding the nature of life, while alienating diverging perspectives, is in a sense itself a new theology. Danesi cautions that effective science should “present ideas to be either testable or understandable or discussable.” Danesi continues by questioning, “What is life? It’s an axiom isn’t it? We have it, period. You can study is as a biologist, that’s fine…but you cannot have a theory to say this is life. That means nothing.

“It’s a more humanistic tradition within the social sciences I ascribe to. We’ve got to give human beings much more worth as creators, makers, than just automatons who take it in and then react to the world.”

As a semiotician, Danesi says semiosis — the comprehension and production of signs, including the creation of words — should be taken into consideration. Signs enter an individual’s brain, and she or he starts to believe that the signs are not just “evaluators” of the world, but “descriptors.”

“And I’m not sure they are [descriptors],” Danesi remarks. “I’ve never seen a meme, have you? I’ve seen trends.”

So how is this relevant to the schadenfreude of Failblog, or the ambrosial appeal of Lolcats? Danesi explains that engagement in such content is not a far cry from being at a carnival, a circus, or in a village in which some strange individuals are not only tolerated but encouraged to be so.

“There is a profane part to the human psyche. It needs to see freakishness.” Danesi calls this “the carnivalesque,” and explains that it allows people to temporarily forget about moral structure and instead engage in the body. Similar to the acts on Failblog, individuals at the circus see the “bearded woman, the 12-foot man, the two-headed Siamese twins.” Likewise, attraction to media like the film Dumb and Dumber has been around since the ancient world. Indeed, the youth of today are not very different from the youth back then.

There is a certain level of gravity that comes with reducing the facets of human life to genes and memes as Dawkins has. Danesi warns, “That means for 5,000 years everything we’ve done in philosophy, theology, and so on, has been a waste of everybody’s time.”